Sarah Bernhardt, the premiere French actress of her time, performed in Atlanta in 1881 and in 1906. She debuted in the Comedie Francaise in 1862 and went on to present her repertory of classical French drama internationally. A gifted artist, she was also a sculptor, painter, and writer and appeared in a number of silent films.
On both visits to Atlanta, Bernhardt performed Camille by Alexandre Dumas (fils). The local media primed theatergoers for the performance, summarizing the plot and describing the actress’s magnificent costumes and jewelry. The parallels between the play about a courtesan’s tragic love for an aristocrat and Bernhardt’s own life made for good melodrama: the Daily Constitution (later the Atlanta Constitution) reported that Bernhardt had “secured her bread at the sacrifice of her virtue in the haunts of poverty.”
Arriving on February 16, 1881, in her private train car, the “City of Worcester,” Bernhardt met that evening the enthusiastic Atlanta audience who packed the original DeGive’s Opera House at the corner of Broad and Marietta streets. The actress was ill, however, and was forced to shorten the performance. Even so, reviewers had high praise for her acting, especially in a realistic death scene.
By the time she returned in the “Bernhardt Special” in 1906, she had become the victim of a syndicate war between her sponsors, the Shuberts, and Klaw and Erlanger’s theatrical combine. Barred from the syndicate’s theaters, she was booked into the Peachtree Auditorium Skating Rink. On the morning of the performance, workmen constructed the stage, installed lighting, put up a “carriage awning,” and arranged 3,000 seats. They also decorated exposed beams and crossbars with flags and bunting to welcome the visitor.
Bernhardt had invited Marie Stewart, billed as the “Atlanta Girl” by the Atlanta Constitution to travel with her from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta in the special car. Stewart described Bernhardt as “a pale-faced woman with deep-set blue eyes, long black lashes, and narrow dark brows; a woman tall and slender with curly, light hair, and long, slender hands. If I had not known her age, I should have guessed it at thirty-five.” (Bernhardt was actually sixty-one.)